Giving Life after Death: Henrietta Lacks Personified

Story by Stephannie Heerdink, CSUB Public Affairs Intern

Photos by Irma Cervantes, CSUB Public Affairs Coordinator

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Highly desired in the scientific community, and bought and sold by the billions, HeLa cells have become one of the most important tools in medicine. The HeLa cells have played a critical role in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and much more. It’s highly likely that if you’ve taken medicine or received a vaccine, you have benefited from a medical advancement that would have been delayed or impossible without some research involving HeLa cells.  One scientists estimates that all of the HeLa cells ever grown would weigh more than 50 million metric tons – the equivalent of at least 100 Empire State Buildings. It is inarguable to say that the HeLa cells revolutionized the medical field.

Where did these miracle cells come from? Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took them in 1951: taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks at the age of 30, without her knowledge or consent. Lacks was a poor, black, tobacco farmer suffering from an aggressive cervical cancer. She died eight months after her cells were taken. Her family today, even without meeting her, refers to Lacks as mother, grandmother and great-grandmother with a name, a story and a legacy.

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As part of the partnership between CSUB’s First Year Experience (FYE) program and the One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern program, granddaughters of Henrietta Lacks came to CSUB as part of the Meet the Lacks Family event to discuss Lacks’ story and the legacy of her famous cells. Speaking to a packed Dore´­ Theatre, Lacks’ granddaughter Kim Lacks, and great-granddaughter Veronica Spencer, enthralled the audience. Through comical humor, personal insights and real-life family facts, they painted a picture that brought life to the woman hidden by the legacy of the HeLa cells and told the story of her family struggles. The discussion gave Lacks a voice and reminded everyone that she was a person, not just a tube of cells. They described their grandmother as a loving person who was always giving, “She gave in life and she continues to give in death.” Lacks loved to cook and dance. She was in some sense an everyday woman.

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For CSUB’s freshman students in the FYE program, who are currently reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the event gave them the chance to connect with Lacks. The discussion gave students the opportunity to re-imagine Lacks’ story and learn about her as a person through the eyes of her family. Lacks’ decedents also gave updates on family members in the book that are still alive today, once again connecting the audience to the family. By sharing the experience of reading a common book, and participating in the partnership with One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern, CSUB students are able to learn more about the community.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot with the help of Deborah, the daughter who never met her mother, tells a captivating story about race, money and medicine. Filled with real-life stories and scientific fact, the book brings life to the women behind the HeLa cells and sheds light on the medical mistreatment and experimentation on African Americans.

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The story of the miracle that was Henrietta will be brought to life on the big screen. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, Alan Ball and HBO have teamed up to produce an HBO telepic based on Skloot’s captivating bestseller.

The applause and excited whispers surrounding this remarkable story spread throughout the theatre at the mention of a movie.  If the audience reaction is any indication of the level of interest in Lacks’ story, the movie is sure to be at the top of the charts.

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One Response to Giving Life after Death: Henrietta Lacks Personified

  1. Judith Pratt says:

    Great story, great writing – Stephanie, you make me proud!

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